Asteroid dust recovered from daring Hayabusa2 mission in Japan

JAXA members pick up a capsule dropped by Hayabusa2 in Woomera, South Australia.

The Hayabusa2 capsule that landed in the desert in South Australia.Credit: AP / Shutterstock

The Japanese mission to return asteroid dust to Earth has been successful. The Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) confirmed on Dec. 14 that a capsule from the Hayabusa2 spacecraft, which landed in the Australian desert last week, contained black grains from asteroid Ryugu.

“The confirmation of the sample is a very important milestone for us and for JAXA,” said Yuichi Tsuda, project manager for the mission at JAXA, in Sagamihara.

JAXA said in a statement that they have observed the sandy material at the entrance to the collection chamber, but have yet to look inside to see if more asteroid dust is lurking there. It’s only the second time that scientists have returned material from an asteroid.

Ryugu’s samples can give researchers important insights into the early evolution of planets and help explain the origin of water on Earth1,2.

“The samples of precious asteroid material will provide scientists with important information about the formation of the solar system,” said Ed Kruzins, director of the Canberra Deep Space Communication Complex, at the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization, who helped track the spacecraft and its encounter. with Ryugu.

The journey of the capsule

In the early hours of December 6, a brilliant fireball shot through the southern sky and landed in the desert in South Australia, where a race was set in motion to find the capsule that scientists hoped contained material from Ryugu.

“Images taken by Hayabusa2 during its landing operations gave us confidence that the spacecraft has collected Ryugu samples,” Satoru Nakazawa, deputy manager of the mission, wrote in an email in Woomera, Australia. But the team couldn’t be sure until they took the capsule apart and saw the dark dust.

About 57 hours after the capsule was located, the team delivered it back to Japan. The fast shipment “means that the samples we received from Ryugu are very pure with no pollution to the Earth’s atmosphere and we have confirmed that there was no leakage,” said Yuichi Tsuda, project manager for the mission at JAXA, in Sagamihara.

Plans for the monsters

Once the capsule is fully unsealed, possibly later today, JAXA scientists will measure the mass of the materials and study their composition and structure. They hope to have collected at least 0.1 gram of material, said Yoshikawa Makoto, mission manager for Hayabusa2 at JAXA.

About 10% of the material will be sent to NASA in December 2021 in exchange for samples from the asteroid Bennu, which spacecraft OSIRIS-Rex collected in October and should arrive on Earth by the end of 2023. Another 15% will be made available to international researchers, and about 40% will be stored for future scientists to investigate.

Hayabusa2 collected the samples over a year and a half from poking and poking Ryugu – a small asteroid in the shape of a squashed sphere, laced with giant boulders3. Ryugu is a C-type, or carbon-rich, asteroid that scientists believe contains organic and hydrated minerals that were preserved 4.6 billion years ago.4. The samples could help explain how the Earth was covered with water. Scientists think it came from the outer reaches of the solar system on asteroids or similar planetary bodies.

Tsuda is interested in finding out if the samples contained more complex organic matter, similar to those found on Earth. “When we find very complicated organics on Ryugu, that’s a very big finding.”

Hayabusa2 has now embarked on its 11-year journey to its next destination, a rapidly rotating asteroid known as 1998 KY26. To reach it, the spacecraft will fly past another asteroid – 2001 CC21 – and swing past Earth two more times.